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5 of the richest companies in history
Inconceivable wealth. And a few lessons in how not to get rich, too.
- You've definitely heard of Apple. But what about the Dutch East India Company?
- Did a 1911 Supreme Court decision result in more millionaires in America than any other court case?
- One example of how not to do it: the rise and fall of the Mississippi Company.
Dutch East India Company
The VOC flag. Photo credit: Michael Coghlan via Flickr.
Known under the initials VOC (Vereenigde Oostindische Compagnie), the Dutch East India Company would be worth about $7.8 trillion today. Founded in 1602, it accomplished globalist capitalism some 400 years before everyone else did. It began as a shipping company — with a 21 year monopoly on the Dutch spice market — before branching into almost every aspect of the spice trade, from production to consumer sales, while still keeping a massive footprint in the shipping industry at large for more than 100 years. But this success came at a massive moral cost: they exploited foreign workers, imprisoned many, and benefitted hugely from the slave trade. But for that 100 years, VOC was a gargantuan presence around the world. They controlled armadas of ships that were able to fight off navies and take territories, an impressive feat for a privately held company (imagine if Arby's began to take over entire city blocks).
You could probably say that the very idea of globalism stems from the VOC. Europeans wanted spices and textiles from Asia, but Asia didn't want very much in return except for precious metals — which Portugal and Spain had in abundance at the time. Paraphrasing here for the sake of brevity, the VOC created a hugely profitable trade corridor between Asia and Europe. And from around 1620 to 1630, the VOC used profits to reinvest in itself, becoming exponentially bigger in the process.
The Mississippi Company and the South Sea Company
Ooh, boy. This is a story. In you lived in France in the early 1700s you'd have likely heard of the Mississippi Company. Depending on which version of their history you read, you'll get two very different narratives about the company. They either controlled much of France's commercial interests in the New World for 20 years before fizzling out due to mismanagement... or they shipped convicts and prostitutes to Arkansas and Louisiana to ostensibly work for them in order to inflate their numbers and increase speculation on paper which nearly led to bankrupting France.
Both versions of the company history hold true. The central figure of the story was a Scottish economist named John Law who convinced the then-king of France, Louis XIV, to allow him to run the Banque Générale Privée ("General Private Bank") in 1716, taking on the national debt, which he then used to finance the Mississippi Company to organize trade with the New World. Law's company, in the space of two short years, bought several other shipping companies in order to create a near-monopoly of trade on the world's oceans. In order to fund such a massive operation, in 1720 the Mississippi Company became tied into the Banque Générale, which became the Banque Royale. Law kept pushing the valuation of his company and soon began shipping prisoners and prostitutes to America to work for his company as part of a marketing scheme which promised huge returns on stock.
The thing is: the scheme worked... but only for a very short while. Stocks soared, and then crashed. The whole cycle lasted just 4 years. Law fled to London and then to Venice, where he gambled away what he had left and died penniless in 1729 in Venice.
At roughly the same time, a joint-stock company was formed in England called the South Sea Company. John Law had been exiled from England after killing a man in a duel in 1694 (and was only free as he'd managed to escape prison and flee to Amsterdam), but after word of his successes with the Mississippi Company reached British shores they decided to set up their own similar joint-stock venture. The South Sea Company was given a monopoly to trade with South America. It, too, overvalued itself... mostly through speculation of a £70 million line of credit through the King of England himself, which never actually happened. A rush on stock by a who's-who of the who-was in England at the time (including Sir Isaac Newton, who had bought about £22,000 in South Sea stock) — followed by a slew of insider trading by South Sea employees who realized the bubble was about to burst — brought about a huge economic crash.
Both the South Sea Company and the Mississippi Company didn't actually do much trading with the Americas. It was mostly just a clever marketing ploy combined with public gullibility.
Businessmen in Saudi Arabia
Invited foreign and Saudi investors attend the Future Investment Initiative (FII) conference in Riyadh, on October 24, 2017.
The head of oil giant Saudi Aramco said that a lack of recent investments in the oil sector could lead to a shortage of supplies. / AFP PHOTO / FAYEZ NURELDINE
Still around today, Saudi Aramco is one of the world's biggest oil producers. Adjusted for inflation, at it's height, the company was worth $4.1 trillion.
When oil was discovered in Bahrain in 1932, the Saudi government accepted a bid from the newly-founded California-Arabian Standard Oil Company to search for oil in nearby Saudi Arabia. Soon after, Texas OilCo bought a 50 percent stake in California-Arabian. For the next five years, no oil was discovered and the company was hemorrhaging money. Finally, oil was discovered in Dhahran in 1938 and production quickly soared. Changing its name to Arabian American Oil Co (or, for short, Aramco) in 1944, it was then forced to share its profits with the Saudi government starting in 1950. This essentially nationalized the oil production, leading the huge amounts of money for the Saudi government. In 1980, the Saudi government assumed full control of Aramco.
While not quite as colorful a history as the Mississippi Company, Aramco is itself responsible for what economists now call the "golden gimmick" — wherein (and I'm definitely paraphrasing) a country's government takes shares from the company because it's just so darn profitable. Must be nice.
John D Rockefeller circa 1930: at work in his study. (Photo by Hulton Archive/Getty Images)
Ever heard the phrase "richer than a Rockefeller"? Well, that's because John D. Rockefeller founded Standard Oil in 1870 in Ohio. It became the largest oil refinery in the world for a number of years. Adjusted for inflation, in 1905, it was worth well over $1 trillion in today's money.
Rockefeller controlled 90 percent of the oil in America during the early 20th century; oil was used during that time primarily as a light source for lamps (this is before electricity became widely available) and then, with the invention of the car, became fuel for automobiles. Rockefeller was the cornerstone of two major industries until 1911, when Standard Oil was dissolved by none other than the U.S. Supreme Court for being an "illegal monopoly." When Standard Oil was broken up into 34 different companies — the shares of those companies became worth more than Standard Oil was, thus making Rockefeller obscenely wealthy instead of just extraordinarily wealthy.
How rich was John D. Rockefeller? Well, in 1913 he alone was worth about 2 percent of the entire U.S. GDP — about $400 billion, when adjusted for today's inflation. He attributed his success to a hard work ethic, his faith in God, and his abstinence from alcohol.
Oh, and those 34 companies? Two of them, Jersey Standard and Socony, became Exxon and Mobil, respectively. They eventually merged into a new company called Exxon-Mobil. That single company took over exactly where Standard Oil had left off and became a huge player in the gasoline industry. In 2007, it was worth $572 billion.
Apple CEO Steve Jobs speaks during an Apple special event April 8, 2010 in Cupertino, California. Jobs announced the new iPhone OS4 software. (Photo by Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)
Apple was founded back in 1976 by Steve Jobs, a canny marketer, and Steve Wozniak, an unparalleled programmer and computer genius. They had early successes in personal computers with the Apple I and the Macintosh, but by the mid-'90s they'd petered out, seemingly much more interested in appeasing shareholders than the public. Did you know Apple made CD players for a while? Digital cameras? A lot of people don't remember Apple's "weird" period.
But let's single out the the Apple Newton. This PDA (personal digital assistant) nearly bankrupted the company in 1993 after being rushed out before it was ready; it's handwriting recognition feature could barely read anything other than block letters and was widely mocked. Hold that thought for a paragraph.
Around 1997, Steve Jobs returned to the company and decided to concentrate on what the company did best: personal computing that catered to regular day-to-day users rather than avid tech professionals. He began to cater to different groups with singular products. The PowerMac for pro users. The iMac for classrooms. The MacBook and the MacBook Pro for people working out of coffeeshops.
But then Apple created the iPod, which could hold an entire library of music in your pocket. It was followed by the iPhone... a landmark device that put the internet, colors and all, in your pocket. The iPhone, funnily enough, has huge similarities to the much maligned Newton. Now consider the iPad and the Apple Pencil and how their handwriting recognition technology is considered the best in the industry. Sometimes you have the right idea but just 20 years too soon.
Then there was the iTunes store, which took over the music industry. Then the App Store, which transformed the tech ecosystem. In August of 2018, they became the most valuable company in the world with $1 trillion in value.
Which is still pennies compared to the Dutch East India Company. But hey. Who's counting?
What is human dignity? Here's a primer, told through 200 years of great essays, lectures, and novels.
- Human dignity means that each of our lives have an unimpeachable value simply because we are human, and therefore we are deserving of a baseline level of respect.
- That baseline requires more than the absence of violence, discrimination, and authoritarianism. It means giving individuals the freedom to pursue their own happiness and purpose.
- We look at incredible writings from the last 200 years that illustrate the push for human dignity in regards to slavery, equality, communism, free speech and education.
The inherent worth of all human beings<p>Human dignity is the inherent worth of each individual human being. Recognizing human dignity means respecting human beings' special value—value that sets us apart from other animals; value that is intrinsic and cannot be lost.</p> <p>Liberalism—the broad political philosophy that organizes society around liberty, justice, and equality—is rooted in the idea of human dignity. Liberalism assumes each of our lives, plans, and preferences have some unimpeachable value, not because of any objective evaluation or contribution to a greater good, but simply because they belong to a human being. We are human, and therefore deserving of a baseline level of respect. </p> <p>Because so many of us take human dignity for granted—just a fact of our humanness—it's usually only when someone's dignity is ignored or violated that we feel compelled to talk about it. </p> <p>But human dignity means more than the absence of violence, discrimination, and authoritarianism. It means giving individuals the freedom to pursue their own happiness and purpose—a freedom that can be hampered by restrictive social institutions or the tyranny of the majority. The liberal ideal of the good society is not just peaceful but also pluralistic: It is a society in which we respect others' right to think and live differently than we do.</p>
From the 19th century to today<p>With <a href="https://books.google.com/ngrams/graph?year_start=1800&year_end=2019&content=human+dignity&corpus=26&smoothing=3&direct_url=t1%3B%2Chuman%20dignity%3B%2Cc0" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Google Books Ngram Viewer</a>, we can chart mentions of human dignity from 1800-2019.</p><img type="lazy-image" data-runner-src="https://assets.rebelmouse.io/eyJhbGciOiJIUzI1NiIsInR5cCI6IkpXVCJ9.eyJpbWFnZSI6Imh0dHBzOi8vYXNzZXRzLnJibC5tcy8yNDg0ODU0My9vcmlnaW4ucG5nIiwiZXhwaXJlc19hdCI6MTY1MTUwMzE4MX0.bu0D_0uQuyNLyJjfRESNhu7twkJ5nxu8pQtfa1w3hZs/img.png?width=980" id="7ef38" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="9974c7bef3812fcb36858f325889e3c6" data-rm-shortcode-name="rebelmouse-image" />
American novelist, writer, playwright, poet, essayist and civil rights activist James Baldwin at his home in Saint-Paul-de-Vence, southern France, on November 6, 1979.
Credit: Ralph Gatti/AFP via Getty Images
The future of dignity<p>Around the world, people are still working toward the full and equal recognition of human dignity. Every year, new speeches and writings help us understand what dignity is—not only what it looks like when dignity is violated but also what it looks like when dignity is honored. In his posthumous essay, Congressman Lewis wrote, "When historians pick up their pens to write the story of the 21st century, let them say that it was your generation who laid down the heavy burdens of hate at last and that peace finally triumphed over violence, aggression and war."</p> <p>The more we talk about human dignity, the better we understand it. And the sooner we can make progress toward a shared vision of peace, freedom, and mutual respect for all. </p>
Scientists find that bursts of gamma rays may exceed the speed of light and cause time-reversibility.
- Astrophysicists propose that gamma-ray bursts may exceed the speed of light.
- The superluminal jets may also be responsible for time-reversibility.
- The finding doesn't go against Einstein's theory because this effect happens in the jet medium not a vacuum.
Jet bursting out of a blazar. Black-hole-powered galaxies called blazars are the most common sources detected by NASA's Fermi Gamma-ray Space Telescope.
Cosmic death beams: Understanding gamma ray bursts<div class="rm-shortcode" data-media_id="cu2knVEk" data-player_id="FvQKszTI" data-rm-shortcode-id="c6cfd20fdf31c82cb206ade8ce21ba3f"> <div id="botr_cu2knVEk_FvQKszTI_div" class="jwplayer-media" data-jwplayer-video-src="https://content.jwplatform.com/players/cu2knVEk-FvQKszTI.js"> <img src="https://cdn.jwplayer.com/thumbs/cu2knVEk-1920.jpg" class="jwplayer-media-preview" /> </div> <script src="https://content.jwplatform.com/players/cu2knVEk-FvQKszTI.js"></script> </div>
Is Bitcoin akin to 'digital gold'?
- In October, PayPal announced that it would begin allowing users to buy, sell, and hold cryptocurrencies.
- Other major fintech companies—Square, Fidelity, SoFi—have also recently begun investing heavily in cryptocurrencies.
- While prices are volatile, many investors believe cryptocurrencies are a relatively safe bet because blockchain technology will prove itself over the long term.
Presentation slide from Sanja Kon's presentation on the evolution of money at 2020 Web Summit
Credit: Sanja Kon<p>The move came shortly after the payments company Square invested $50 million into Bitcoin, and after Fidelity announced that it was opening a Bitcoin fund into which qualified purchasers could invest <a href="https://www.bloomberg.com/news/articles/2020-08-26/fidelity-launches-inaugural-bitcoin-fund-for-wealthy-investors" target="_blank">(minimum investment: $100,000)</a>. Together, this institutional backing might have something to do with Bitcoin's recent surge back to near its 2017 price peak of $19,783. (Bitcoin is listed at 19,384.30 as of Dec. 3.)<br></p>
Presentation slide from Sanja Kon's presentation on the evolution of money at 2020 Web Summit
Credit: Sanja Kon<p>But more importantly, it suggests cryptocurrencies might soon have the opportunity to prove themselves in real-world use cases. After all, skeptics have long doubted the ability of cryptocurrencies to go mainstream as a form of everyday payment. But people seem increasingly comfortable with digital payment systems.</p><p style="margin-left: 20px;">"The entire world is going to come into digital first," Schulman said at Web Summit, adding that PayPal's services already go hand-in-hand with cryptocurrencies. "As we thought about it, digital wallets are a natural complement to digital currencies. We've got over 360 million digital wallets and we need to embrace cryptocurrencies."</p><p>Sanja Kon, vice president of global partnerships at the cryptocurrency payments processor company UTRUST, also spoke at Web Summit about the increasing adoption of digital payments:</p><p style="margin-left: 20px;">"Physical cash is becoming more and more obsolete. And the next step in the evolution is digital currency."</p><p>Kon noted some of the inherent advantages of cryptocurrencies, namely ownership. </p><p style="margin-left: 20px;">"For many people, this is really the main benefit of cryptocurrency: Users owning cryptocurrencies are able to control how they spend their money without dealing with any intermediary authority like a bank or a government, for example," Kon said, adding that there are no bank fees associated with cryptocurrencies, and that international transaction fees are significantly lower than wire transfers of fiat currency.</p><p>Kon said cryptocurrencies have unique growth opportunities in areas where people aren't integrated into modern banking systems:</p><p style="margin-left: 20px;">"With cryptocurrencies and blockchain, with the use of just a smartphone and access to internet, Bitcoin and cryptocurrencies can be available to populations of people and users without access to the traditional banking system."</p>
Bitcoin as 'digital gold'<p>Still, it could take years for people to start using cryptocurrencies for everyday purchases on a large scale. Despite this, many cryptocurrency advocates see digital currencies, particularly Bitcoin, as a way to store value—digital gold, essentially.</p><p style="margin-left: 20px;">"I don't think Bitcoin is going to be used as a transactional currency anytime in the next five years," billionaire investor Mike Novogratz recently told <a href="https://www.bloomberg.com/news/articles/2020-10-23/novogratz-says-bitcoin-is-digital-gold-not-a-currency-for-now?srnd=markets-vp" target="_blank">Bloomberg</a>. "Bitcoin is being used as a store of value. [...] "Bitcoin as a gold, as digital gold, is just going to keep going higher. More and more people are going to want it as some portion of their portfolio."</p><p>There are obvious parallels between gold and Bitcoin: Both are mined, do not degrade over time, are finite in supply, and aren't directly tied to the value of fiat currency, making them <a href="https://www.reuters.com/article/us-gold-inflation/gold-as-an-inflation-hedge-well-sort-of-idUSKCN1GD516" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">relatively invulnerable to inflation</a>. The obvious objection is that the price of Bitcoin, and cryptocurrencies in general, is far more volatile than gold.</p><p>But for investors who believe the inherent value of cryptocurrency technology will prove itself over the long term, these price fluctuations are just bumps on the long road to the future of currency. </p><p style="margin-left: 20px;">"It's no longer a debate if crypto is a thing, if Bitcoin is an asset, if the blockchain is going to be part of the financial infrastructure," Novogratz said. "It's not if, it's when, and so every single company has to have a plan now."</p>
Singapore has approved the sale of a lab-grown meat product in an effort to secure its food supplies against disease and climate change.
Approve for your dining pleasure<span style="display:block;position:relative;padding-top:56.25%;" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="dd3f57f8baf14e654812d30a309d1f17"><iframe type="lazy-iframe" data-runner-src="https://www.youtube.com/embed/307gysA18_E?rel=0" width="100%" height="auto" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" style="position:absolute;top:0;left:0;width:100%;height:100%;"></iframe></span><p><a href="https://www.ju.st/en-us" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Eat Just</a>, a company that produces animal-alternative food products, announced the news earlier this week. In what the company is calling a world first, Singapore has given it permission for a small-scale commercial launch of their GOOD Meat brand product line. For the initial run, the cultured chicken meat will be sold as an ingredient in "chicken bites."</p><p>"Singapore has long been a leader in innovation of all kinds, from information technology to biologics to now leading the world in building a healthier, safer food system. I'm sure that our regulatory approval for cultured meat will be the first of many in Singapore and in countries around the globe," Josh Tetrick, co-founder and CEO of Eat Just, <a href="https://www.businesswire.com/news/home/20201201006251/en/Eat-Just-Granted-World%E2%80%99s-First-Regulatory-Approval-for-Cultured-Meat" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">said in a release</a>.</p><p>According to the release, Eat Just underwent an extensive safety review by the Singapore Food Agency. It provided officials "details on the purity, identity and stability of chicken cells during the manufacturing process, as well as a detailed description of the manufacturing process which demonstrated that harvested cultured chicken met quality controls and a rigorous food safety monitoring system." It also demonstrated the consistency of its production by running more than 20 cycles in its 1,200-liter bioreactors.</p><p>While Eat Just did not offer details on its propriety process, it likely follows <a href="https://www.newscientist.com/article/mg24032080-400-accelerating-the-cultured-meat-revolution/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">one similar to other lab-grown meats</a>. It starts with muscle cell samples drawn from a living animal. Technicians then isolate stem cells from the sample and culture them <em>in vitro</em>. These cultured stem cells are then placed in a bioreactor, essentially a fermenter for fleshy cells. The bioreactor contains scaffolding materials to keep the growing tissue from falling apart as well as a growth material—the sugars, salts, and other nutrients the tissue needs to grow. As the cells grow, they begin to differentiate into the muscle, fat, and other cells of meat tissue. Once grown, the tissues are formed into a meat product to be shipped to restaurants and supermarkets.</p>
An abattoir abatement?<img type="lazy-image" data-runner-src="https://assets.rebelmouse.io/eyJhbGciOiJIUzI1NiIsInR5cCI6IkpXVCJ9.eyJpbWFnZSI6Imh0dHBzOi8vYXNzZXRzLnJibC5tcy8yNDg2Mjg5OS9vcmlnaW4uanBnIiwiZXhwaXJlc19hdCI6MTYyODg1NDI3N30.AYmFJfWQbPjK-o1IatyFHL-OLjcfXBMmQKYyvz4oT3s/img.jpg?width=980" id="8a82d" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="93f824fe4c6f397ab2b65e4665847e71" data-rm-shortcode-name="rebelmouse-image" />
A graph showing the number of animals slaughtered in the United States per year from 1961–2018.
Credit: Our World in Data<p>Singapore's approval is an important step in support for clean meats—so-called because they don't require animal slaughter and would likely leave a reduced carbon footprint—but hurdles remain before widespread adoption is possible.</p><p>The most glaring is the price. The first lab-grown hamburger was eaten in London in 2013. <a href="https://www.bbc.com/news/science-environment-23576143" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">It cost roughly $330,000</a>. As with any new technology, investment, iteration, and improved manufacturing will see the price drop substantially and quickly. For comparison, Eat Just's chicken will be priced equivalent to premium chicken.</p><p>Other hurdles include up-scaling production, <a href="https://www.nature.com/articles/d41586-019-00373-w" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">the need for further research</a>, and developing techniques to reliably produce in-demand meats such as fish and beef. Finally, not all countries may be as receptive as Singapore. Countries with large, entrenched meat industries may protect this legacy industry through a protracted and difficult regulatory process. Though, the meat industry itself is investing in lab-grown meat. Tyson Foods, for example, has <a href="https://euromeatnews.com/Article-Tyson-Foods-announces-investment-in-clean-meat/697" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">invested in the food-tech startup Memphis Meats</a>, the company that debuted the world's first beef meatball.</p><p>"I would imagine what will happen is the U.S., Western Europe and others will see what Singapore has been able to do, the rigours of the framework that they put together. And I would imagine that they will try to use it as a template to put their own framework together," <a href="https://www.reuters.com/article/us-eat-just-singapore/singapore-approves-sale-of-lab-grown-meat-in-world-first-idUSKBN28C06Z" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Tetrick told Reuter's during an interview</a>.</p><p>Regardless of the challenges, the demand for meat substitutes is present and growing. In 2020, plant-based substitutes like Beyond Meat and Impossible foods <a href="https://bigthink.com/coronavirus/plant-based-meat" target="_self">gained a significant foothold in supermarkets</a> as meat-packing factories became coronavirus hotspots. The looming threat of climate change has also turned people away from meat as animal products. Livestock production is environmentally taxing and leaves <a href="http://css.umich.edu/factsheets/carbon-footprint-factsheet" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">a much larger carbon footprint</a> than grain and vegetable production. </p><p>Then there's the moral concern of animal cruelty. In 2018 alone, 302 million cows, 656 million turkeys, 1.48 billion pigs, and a gob-smacking 68 billion chickens were <a href="https://ourworldindata.org/grapher/animals-slaughtered-for-meat" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">slaughtered for meat worldwide</a>. And those figures do not include chickens killed in dairy or egg production.</p><p>If brought to scale and widely available, clean meats could become serious competitors to traditional meat. <a href="https://bigthink.com/technology-innovation/meat-alternatives" target="_self">One report has even predicted</a> that 60 percent of the meat people eat by 2040 won't come from slaughtered animals. It could be just the thing for people looking for a meat substitute but who find tofurkey as distasteful as, well tofurkey.</p>